Vulnerability as a strength in a leader

Nicole McNeill, President & CAO sitting in board room with employees.Being a vulnerable leader can change the culture and engagement of a team and a workforce.

As I reflect on 2020, this year has undoubtedly been a unique year where we’ve pushed ourselves more than we could have imagined in our lifetime – both personally and professionally. While we’re being told to keep at a physical distance from each other, what benefit would it have to keep at an emotional distance too? There is value in leaning in on the excellence that you surround yourself with as a leader!

Brené Brown, a research professor and a New York Times bestselling author of Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way we Live, Love, Parent, and Lead, defines vulnerability as “uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure.”

There is courage and strength in being compassionate and vulnerable. Looking at it from this perspective may help rid the historical thinking that vulnerability is a weakness where you risk exposing yourself emotionally, showing uncertainty, or giving up control. 

Giving up control can lead to imagination, innovation and inspiration. We saw that within our workforce at the Municipal Property Assessment Corporation (MPAC) when we started the Diversity and Inclusion Project Team this summer. 

I was deeply affected by the stories of racism shared by employees when racial injustice was at the forefront of discussions this year and I openly shared with everyone that I hadn’t experienced racism myself. I felt ok to be vulnerable saying that I was initially uncomfortable talking about it. As we tackled this together, I got comfortable and I’m not sure I would have been ok saying that a year ago. 

On our journey, the project team ensured that the work we do remains grassroots and that the corporation would not just come in and take it over. In fact, I offered ideas and suggestions, and sometimes they wouldn't agree – all for good reasons. I encouraged this. I would say to the team, this is a safe space. A space where we all get to share our ideas, concerns, fears and aspirations openly and without judgement. It was important for me as well as I tend to generate a lot of ideas, not all great ones, and I need people to be honest with their feedback and not just say 'yes' because of my 'President' title. In addition, we weren’t going to rush any processes, such as hiring a consultant or how we were going to survey employees on diversity and inclusion questions. We weren’t going to check off boxes. It was about letting go of the power and using the leadership platform for good to support each other.

Supporting each other also means those outside of work. I’ve had many mentees over my career, and I continue my mentorship relationship with Giselle Saati. Giselle shared with me that whenever she’s in a social setting and feels her self-esteem is threatened or her identity is vulnerable, she tends to resort to the common social practice of presenting her vocational designation, accomplishments or future projects. 

“Nicole’s kind disposition disarmed my need to impress,” said Saati. “In my first encounter with Nicole, I presented myself just as I am and she experienced me just as I am. I shared with her the story of my first business failure and that I was a mature student at Ryerson University. I had deep feelings of shame. Shame is actually what gets in the way of vulnerability. Although the Top 200 Program at Ryerson originally chose Nicole as my mentor, I chose her to be my mentor for the past four years. In her presence, I feel like her equal and feel free to share my ideas and thoughts.”

You can have emotional intelligence and be a rock for the people around you and an organization. This starts and ends with people. Listen to what people need and they will honestly tell you. I feel more in touch with the pulse of the organization now than pre-pandemic and our employees tell us they feel this way too. 

There was this concept of work-life balance where you’d check your emotions at the door when starting your workday. Now that our home and work lives are so intermingled, employees need more support than ever – especially from their colleagues who know them the best.

Sometimes, the best medicine for mental health is to talk and connect with others. We all have a role to play in this, which is peer support. Challenge yourself to ask someone how they are ‘really doing’ and you do the same. I’ve shared with people I have good days and bad days. I’ve openly talked about mental health and wellness, and my struggles with being bullied early on in my career. It starts with talking about it and being real about it.

Former Lieutenant Colonel Stéphane Grenier joined nearly 2,000 employees for a virtual discussion on mental health and the concept of peer support. Stéphane said during our conversation “I rarely deal with leaders who say put me on the spot.” By being vulnerable and open, we can create a culture where people bring their best selves to work and know they are supported by their colleagues. 

“I’ve rarely met someone who has been through a serious mental health challenge who has recovered who is not looking for the opportunity to help a fellow human being. When organizations pivot into that, they lift that last cloud of stigma…you are actually valuing the wisdom they acquired through their recovery.”

There’s vulnerability in reaching out to someone who you know has had a bad day or is going through a hard time. I receive more emails and phone calls than pre-pandemic because I’ve been vulnerable. People have felt moved to share advice with me and are comfortable sharing their personal stories. I make a commitment to respond to each person – especially in the absence of face-to-face interaction. I haven't counted but it's safe to say it is in the thousands. There is trust built because we’ve been transparent in saying “put your hand up if you can help out a peer. Don’t be afraid to ask for help as we know you may be juggling work, kids and family. We want to be flexible.”

There are risks we take everyday as leaders by being brave and making bold decisions. Nothing is braver than knocking down the walls, being ‘a rock’ and supporting people at a time of uncertainty. I’m not sure when it was taught to keep at a distance to project a particular image as an ‘ideal’ leader. I just know that being authentic has resonated with people and I can be myself. Leadership isn’t about hierarchy. It’s about creating an environment where people can be people, which makes for a great place to work and, more importantly, be. 

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